Catherine Leroy, my choice for International Women’s Day…
Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. Personally, I think of it as a time to stop and reflect on the daily struggles of many women across the globe to quite literally survive a man’s world. When, I wonder will women in Afghanistan, the tribal areas of Pakistan and the impoverished on the African subcontinent ever be free of persecution both physically and mentally? Will women in sports and entertainment ever be given an equal platform, a credit where it is due? There is still a long way to go.
So today I thought I would mark the occasion with choosing a remarkable woman who managed to gain enormous credit and respect for her work in what couldn’t be any more of a ‘man’s field’ if it tried. A war zone.
Catherine Leroy was born in Paris in 1945. As a child she studied classical music until 1966 when, at the age of twenty one she bought a one-way ticket to Saigon and the Vietnam War. Armed with a Leica camera, she entered the theatre of war by parachute, so light was she that she had to have weights strapped to her to aid her descent. Once on the ground, her first point of contact in Saigon was none other than the legendary Horst Faas at the offices of Associated Press who clearly saw something in the inexperienced and untrained Leroy to give her three rolls of film and offer her $15 a shot for anything worth printing. It was a good decision.
Leroy was tough, standing at five feet tall she regularly carried her bodyweight in kit, she survived capture by the North Vietnamese during the Hue offensive in ’68 after seeing her chest torn apart by mortar fire the year before. She would live the rest of her life with shrapnel still embedded insider her and it was her Nikon which stopped one piece from almost certainly killing her. Leroy’s no-nonsense, tough-talking approach helped her cope with the worst examples of human suffering imaginable, from the jungles of Vietnam to the bombed out streets of Beirut in ’82 she captured scenes which had an impact, which demanded more than a pause for thought. She was part of that journalistic elite which covered war like no other before or since and like her peers, never wasted an opportunity to remind the public and their elected leaders alike of the reality of war.
Like Don McCullin, she had a capacity to see moments of warmth and kindness and capture those images to restore a sense of balance to an otherwise unfathomable situation. Between Vietnam and Beirut she saw conflict in Northern Ireland, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cyprus and Somalia but it was Beirut which would not only see some of her finest work but mark the end of a remarkable career in combat photography. She had simply seen enough.
In later life she turned to fashion photography and ran a vintage clothes store in California before dying of lung cancer in 2006.